The dementia patient’s elderly non-English-speaking wife, with her middle-aged son as translator, confessed to me her fear of having the same thing happen to her as she had watched happen to her husband. After learning that dementia has been fairly common in her husband’s family, but that no one else in her own family has had it, I assured her that since much of the risk is genetic, she probably had nothing to fear.
I realized my faux pas just as her son began to translate what I had said, and knew from his expression he had realized it at almost the same instant. He shot me a wincing half-smile while he finished what he was saying to her, and we both watched as the tension in her face eased a little, and she turned her attention back to her husband.
“Ummm…sorry,” I told him. “I guess that didn’t do much to put *your* mind at ease…” He grinned and shrugged. His goal had been to try to calm some of his mom’s anxiety during this difficult time, and we’d accomplished that, at least…”You know,” I reassured him, “medical science is making great progress toward preventing dementia…”
That thing where you’re supposed to focus on the person you’re having the conversation with, and pretend the translator isn’t really even there? Turns out that thing can kinda backfire on you sometimes.